Cummings v. Target Stores, Inc.
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge James H Hancock on 8/5/2014. (JLC)
2014 Aug-05 PM 02:00
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
TARGET STORES, INC.
The court has before it the Motion (Doc. #26) for Summary Judgment filed by
Defendant Target Stores, Inc. (“Target”) on May 23, 2014. Pursuant to the court’s
order (Doc. #28) of May 28, 2014, the Motion (Doc. #26) for Summary Judgment was
deemed submitted, without oral argument, to the court for review as of July 3, 2014.
Plaintiff Deborah Cummings commenced this action in the Circuit Court of
Jefferson County, Bessemer Division on July 16, 2012 asserting claims related to a
slip and fall in the Target store on Promenade Parkway. (See Doc. #1, Exh. C). On
August 24, 2012 Defendant Target removed the action to this court under diversity
and supplemental jurisdiction. (See Doc. #1, ¶¶ 12, 19). Target now seeks summary
judgment in its favor, asserting that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that
Defendant Target is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
The parties have each filed briefs and submitted evidence in support of their
respective positions concerning the Motion (Doc. #26) for Summary Judgment. On
May 23, 2014, Defendant submitted evidence (Doc. #26, Exhs. A-F)1 in support of
the Motion (Doc. #26) for Summary Judgment and also filed a supporting brief (Doc.
#27). Plaintiff Deborah Cummings filed a brief (Doc. #34) in opposition to Target’s
motion for summary judgment on June 26, 2014, and on the same date filed evidence2
in support of the opposition. On July 3, 2014, Target filed a final reply brief (Doc.
#35) in further support of its motion for summary judgment.
Standards for Evaluating a Summary Judgment Motion3
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is proper “if
the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together
with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact
Defendants filed: Plaintiff Deborah Cummings’s deposition transcript, with exhibits
(Exhibit A); the declaration of Target Executive Team Lead-Human Resources Kevin Patterson
(Exhibit B); Target representative Katie Crosslin’s deposition transcript, with exhibit (Exhibit
C); declaration of Target Guest Services Team Lead, Vinanatta Patterson (Exhibit D); Kevin
Patterson’s deposition transcript (Exhibit E); and John Cummings’s deposition transcript, with
exhibits (Exhibit F).
Plaintiff filed: Defendant’s Answers to Plaintiff’s Interrogatories (Exhibit 1); a Guest
Incident Report (Exhibit 2); Defendant’s Responses to Plaintiff’s Requests for Production
(Exhibit 3); a Team Member Witness Statement (Exhibit 4); and Defendant’s Supplemental
Responses and Objections to Plaintiff’s Interrogatories (Exhibit 5).
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 was amended on December 1, 2010. However,
even with the 2010 amendments, “the standard for granting summary judgment remains
unchanged.” FED. R. CIV. P. 56 Advisory Committee’s Note (2010 Amendments).
and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp.
v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Chapman v. AI Transport, 229 F.3d 1012, 1023
(11th Cir. 2000). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial
responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those
portions of the pleadings or filings that the moving party believes demonstrate the
absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. Once the
moving party has met its burden, Rule 56(a) requires the nonmoving party to go
beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is
a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.
The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are
irrelevant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Chapman, 229
F.3d at 1023. All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are
resolved in favor of the nonmovant. Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023; Fitzpatrick v. City
of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence
is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.”
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Chapman, 229 F.3d at 1023. If the evidence is merely
colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. The method used by the party moving for summary
judgment to discharge its initial burden depends on whether that party bears the
burden of proof on the issue at trial. See Fitzpatrick, 2 F.3d at 1115-17 (citing United
States v. Four Parcels of Real Property, 941 F.2d 1428 (11th Cir. 1991) (en banc)).
If the moving party bears the burden of proof at trial, then it can only meet its initial
burden on summary judgment by coming forward with positive evidence
demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact (i.e. facts that would
entitle it to a directed verdict if not controverted at trial). Fitzpatrick, 2 F.3d at 1115.
Once the moving party makes such a showing, the burden shifts to the nonmoving
party to produce significant, probative evidence demonstrating a genuine issue for
If the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, it can satisfy its
initial burden on summary judgment in either of two ways. First, the moving party
may produce affirmative evidence negating a material fact, thus demonstrating that
the nonmoving party will be unable to prove its case at trial. Once the moving party
satisfies its burden using this method, the nonmoving party must respond with
positive evidence sufficient to resist a motion for directed verdict at trial. The second
method by which the moving party who does not bear the burden of proof at trial can
satisfy its initial burden on summary judgment is to affirmatively show the absence
of evidence in the record to support a judgment for the nonmoving party on the issue
in question. This method requires more than a simple statement that the nonmoving
party cannot meet its burden at trial but does not require evidence negating the
nonmovant’s claim; it simply requires the movant to point out to the district court that
there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case. Fitzpatrick,
2 F.3d at 1115-16. If the movant meets its initial burden by using this second method,
the nonmoving party may either point out to the court record evidence, overlooked
or ignored by the movant, sufficient to withstand a directed verdict, or the nonmoving
party may come forward with additional evidence sufficient to withstand a directed
verdict motion at trial based on the alleged evidentiary deficiency. However, when
responding, the nonmovant can no longer rest on mere allegations, but must set forth
evidence of specific facts. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 358 (1996) (citing Lujan
v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992)).
On August 14, 2010, Deborah Cummings, a 55 year old female, went to the
Target store in Bessemer, Alabama with her husband John. (See Doc. #27, ¶¶ 1-2).
Where the facts are in dispute, they are stated in the manner most favorable to Plaintiff,
the non-moving party. See Fitzpatrick, 2 F.3d at 1115.
At 12:59 pm, Deborah and John checked out and walked to the area of the store
known as Food Avenue to purchase popcorn. (See id., ¶ 3).
Food Avenue contains a concession area and a long counter where guests get
their fountain drinks from a drink and ice machine. (See id., ¶ 4). An absorbent black
mat is located on the floor in front of the drink machine as a precautionary measure
to reduce any slip hazard from spills, trash, or debris.5 (See id.). At 12:59:34 pm,
Plaintiff walked without incident through the area in front of the drink machine where
she subsequently fell. (See id., ¶ 5). From 1:00:08 pm until 1:00:59 pm, John
Cummings stood in the middle of the black safety mat; he did not look at the floor
while standing there.6 (See id., ¶ 6).
After getting her popcorn, Plaintiff joined her husband and walked past the
drink station toward the store exit at approximately 1:00:59 pm, passing a second
time over the area where she would fall but without incident. (See id., ¶ 7). At
approximately 1:01:04 pm, Plaintiff turned around and walked back toward the
concession area to put salt on her popcorn. (See id., ¶ 8). She was not watching her
The drink machine in Food Avenue was serviced one month before the incident, and
the machine’s maintenance history does not reflect any pattern of leaks or ice bouncing out of the
drink tray. (Exh. C at 164-166).
Target contends that John Cummings looked at the floor while standing on the black
mat. (Doc. #27, ¶ 6). Because this fact is in dispute, it is stated above in the manner most
favorable to Plaintiff. (See Doc. #34, ¶ 6).
feet but was focused on eating her popcorn. (Exh. A at 76-77). A few seconds later,
she slipped and fell. (See Doc. #27, ¶ 8). She did not want an ambulance called, and
walked out of the store without assistance. (Exh. D, ¶ 10).
John Cummings noticed a “spot of water” close to his wife that was no bigger
than a coaster, which he pointed out to her. (See Doc. #27, ¶ 7). Plaintiff described
the liquid as “a little bit of water” containing some melting ice on the tile floor. (See
id.; see also Exh. A at 66). However Plaintiff disputes that the liquid and ice
described as such encompasses the totality of the substance or the full amount of
liquid and ice in her proximity when she fell. (See Doc. #34, ¶ 7). When asked if she
saw single or multiple puddles, Plaintiff responded: “I don’t really know, but it had
to be more than one because of my pants, my capris and then up here (indicating).
ÿ When I glanced back (indicating), I could see one little piece [of ice], but the other
little water pud -- water -- little puddles . . . ” (Pl. Dep., Exh. A at 63-64, 74; Exh. F21). Plaintiff did not see any shopping cart tracks, brown dirt marks, streaks in the
liquid, or any other signs that the spot of water and/or ice had been on the floor any
length of time. (Exh. A at 73; J. Cummings Dep., Exh. F at 28). Neither Plaintiff nor
her husband knows where the liquid and/or ice originated or how long it may have
been on the floor. (Exh. A at 92-94; Exh. F at 28-29). Target has no knowledge of
the origin of the liquid either. (Crosslin Dep., Exh. C at 194-196).
Target Training and Instructions
All Target Team Members (employees) receive training and instruction to be
mindful of the conditions of the premises, look for hazards on the floors or in the
other fixtures and equipment of the store, and either take immediate action to correct
the hazard or call for assistance. (K. Patterson Decl., Exh. B at ¶ 10). They are also
trained to monitor the floor to maintain safe conditions for guests and employees, and
employees are tested at least once a year to demonstrate that they know how to handle
spills correctly. (Exh. C at 35; Exh. D, V. Patterson Decl. at ¶ 6). Target trains its
employees to have a heightened awareness of spills of liquid, as well as debris and
trash. (Exh. C at 176). Target maintains no specific inspection schedule or
inspection log, requiring instead that "[a]ll Target employees on an ongoing basis
inspect their departments for the purpose of identifying and correcting any conditions
that might present a risk to guests and/or team members, as well as for general
cleaning purposes." (Exh. 1, Response to No. 7; see also Doc. #34 at 7, ¶¶ 15, 16, 17,
Target Team Members are reminded in team meetings every day to provide a
safe and secure environment for guests and employees and to be mindful of things
that could potentially cause harm. (Exh. C at 182-183). However, the manager of the
store, Katie Crosslin testified that she was unable to specifically recall whether she
met with the managers on the day of injury before the injury occurred. (Exh. C at 62).
As a Target manager, Kevin Patterson monitored the Food Avenue each time
he walked through the area to ensure that it was up to Target standards. (See K.
Patterson Dep., Exh. E at 15-16). At approximately 12:52 pm on the date of the
incident, Kevin Patterson walked down the aisle through Food Avenue, just beside
and parallel to the black floor mat in front of the drink machine. (Exh. B, ¶¶ 4, 9;
Exh. E at 15). Patterson does not have a specific mental image of walking through
that area, but he is confident that he adhered to his personal practice of scanning the
area to detect any untidiness or safety concerns, including checking for anything
visible on the floor. (Exh. B, ¶ 9; Exh. E at 9, 12, 17). Patterson did not see any
liquid on the floor beside the mat in front of the Food Avenue drink machine, or he
would have immediately stopped to guard the spill and have it cleaned up. (Exh. B,
¶ 10; Exh. E at 16).
There is no evidence that prior to Plaintiff’s fall at the Bessemer store that there
was any pattern of liquids or ice making their way onto the tile floor beyond the black
mat in front of the drink machine in Food Avenue. (Exh. B. ¶ 8; Exh. C at 190).
However, the surveillance video of the area where Plaintiff fell revealed that in the
20 minutes prior to Plaintiff's fall, up to 80 people traversed or otherwise occupied
the area.7 (Exh. A-18).
Katie Crosslin, the Leader on Duty (“LOD”) at the Bessemer store on the date
of the incident, made regular rounds and canvassed all areas of the store at least once
an hour, including the front end. (Exh. C at 9, 169-170, 173). On that date, Crosslin
walked through and canvassed Food Avenue with high frequency, with an awareness
of whether there was anything on the floor that might be in a guest or employee’s
way. (Exh. C at 170-172). She does not know of any evidence, however, that anyone
who works for Target directly inspected the floor where Cummings fell during
business hours prior to the fall. (Exh. C at 156).
Target’s Guest Services Team Lead, Vinanatta (“Venni”) Patterson,8 along with
other Target employees, also walked through Food Avenue periodically to monitor
and make certain everything was neat. (Exh. D, ¶ 5). If Vinanatta observed anything
spilled on the counter or floor, she would direct the employee at the Target Café to
clean up the spill. (Exh. D, ¶ 5). In fact, approximately eight minutes prior to
Plaintiff’s fall, Vinanatta went to provide cash to the cashier midway down the check
Crosslin testified that it was no more likely that liquids or ice may be on the floor in the
concession area after lunch or after a rush of users than at other times during the day. (Exh. C at
Vinanatta was the supervisor responsible for the front end of the store on the date of
this incident. (Exh. C at 32-33, 35).
lanes. (Exh. A-18 at 12:53 pm; Exh. C, ¶ 7). From that location, Vinanatta did not
see any spill in Food Avenue; however, she did not specifically inspect the floor.9
(Exh. D, ¶¶ 7, 8; see also Exh. A-18). Had she noticed any spill, she would have
immediately addressed it. (Exh. D, ¶¶ 7, 8).
Plaintiff contends that the Target Team Members closest to where she fell –
one or more cashiers in the check lanes – should have been able to see the small spot
of water. (Exh. A at 90). She could not place any individual cashier, however, or
estimate the distance between where she fell and where they were working. (Exh. A
Applicable Law and Analysis
The Negligence Claim and Target’s Responsibility to Invitees onto
A premises owner such as Target has a duty to “exercise ordinary and
reasonable care to keep [its] premises in a reasonably safe condition with respect to
invitees.” Cook v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 795 F.Supp.2d 1269, 1273 (M.D. Ala.
2011). A retailer “is not an insurer of the customers’ safety but it is liable for injury
only in the event [the storekeeper] negligently fails to use reasonable care in
The surveillance video reveals that when Patterson was not with a guest during the time
in question, she was traversing or near to the area where Plaintiff would ultimately fall. (Exh. A18).
maintaining [its] premises in a reasonably safe condition.” Id. (quoting Dolgencorp,
Inc. v. Hall, 890 So.2d 98, 101 (Ala. 2003) (internal quotations omitted)). That is,
actual or constructive notice of a potentially hazardous condition must be proven
before a premises owner can be held responsible for an injury on its property.
Plaintiff does not dispute that this is the operative law in this case, and focuses her
argument on the contention that Target had constructive notice of an unsafe condition
on its premises. (See Doc. #34 at 13-23).
Constructive notice is established from evidence that a hazard was present for
a sufficient period of time such that notice can be imputed on the premises owner.
See Cook, 795 F.Supp.2d at 1273; see also Richardson v. Kroger Co., 521 So.2d 934,
936 (Ala. 1988) and S.H. Kress & Co. v. Thompson, 267 Ala. 566, 570 (1957). The
nature of the liquid on the floor can be used as evidence to indicate how long it had
been on the floor prior to the incident. See Dunklin v. Winn-Dixie of Montgomery,
595 So.2d 463 (Ala. 1992). For example, a jury is permitted to “infer the length of
time from evidence that the substance is ‘dirty, crumpled, or mashed, or has some
other characteristic which makes it reasonable to infer that the substance has been on
the floor long enough to raise a duty on the defendant to discover and remove it.’”
Cash v. Winn-Dixie of Montgomery, Inc., 418 So.2d 874, 876 (Ala. 1982); see also
Williams v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 584 F.Supp.2d 1316, 1319 (M.D. Ala. 2008).
The parties focus their attention on the quantity and nature of the liquid
substance on the ground at the time of Plaintiff’s fall to support their respective
positions on constructive notice. (See Doc. #27 at 13-19; see also Doc. #34 at 14-17).
Plaintiff’s testimony on this aspect of the case is not entirely clear. She admits that
she did not see any water on the floor prior to her fall,10 yet recalls that there was ice
on the floor which was pointed out to her after her fall. (Exh. A at 58).
My husband said, “Look right behind her. There’s ice and there’s
puddles of little” – “little puddles of water.” And they ran and got
one of those – what do you call them little cone like things?
Caution, wet or something. And they went and got a mop and a
bucket. I do remember all that going on.
Just glancing around, a little bit of water, but that – that was it. ÿ
Maybe a little – maybe like that (indicating) [the size of a
When I glanced back – when I glanced back (indicating), I could
see one little piece [of ice], but the other little water pud – water
– little puddles –, I mean, it was just like a (indicating), and that’s
it, you know. A glance back.
[The puddle I saw contained] some ice, but more water. Like
(Exh. A at 60, 65, 66, 74; Exh. F-21). When asked whether there was a single puddle
or multiple puddles, Plaintiff testified:
See discussion infra Section IV.B. for a discussion on the open and obvious nature of
the potential hazard.
There had to be – I don’t really know, but it had to be more than
one because of my pants, my capris and then up here (indicating)
It was two or three areas (indicating) [that were wet on my capri
pants after the fall], and they were white capris.
(Exh. A at 64, 73). Plaintiff testified that the liquid that she observed on the floor
after her fall was clear and without any brown marks or streaks in it. (Exh. A at 73).
Taking this testimony, the parties argue their respective positions on
constructive notice. Defendant Target argues that because a number of Target guests
and Team Members (Kevin Patterson and Vinanatta Patterson) had traversed the same
area in the minutes leading up to the fall and none mentioned or acted as if there was
a spill, and because the puddle was clear, it could not have been on the floor very
long such as to impart constructive notice. (See Doc. #27 at 14-15) (quoting
Williams, 584 F. Supp.2d at 1230-1321) (summary judgment granted on plaintiff’s
negligence claim due to lack of notice, holding that “the testimony that the puddle
was ‘clear’ and that [the plaintiff’s] sister failed to notice it when she exited the store
a minute earlier suggests that, if anything, the puddle had not been on the floor for
very long.”). Plaintiff counters that melting and melted ice are characteristics that
courts consider in determining whether a substance had been on the floor long enough
to impart constructive notice and that Target admits that no employees directly
inspected the floor for spills on the day in question.11 (See Doc. #34 at 14-16) (citing
Maddox v. K-Mart Corp., 565 So.2d 14, 16-17 (Ala. 1990)) (holding that constructive
notice could be imputed to defendant where a spilled soft drink had become sticky on
The problem for Plaintiff is that her argument for Target’s constructive notice
of the spill is mere conjecture that cannot create a material dispute of fact. She admits
that she has no knowledge of how long the liquid might have been on the floor and
she admits that she merely “assumed” that the liquid came from the ice dispenser.
(Exh. A at 92-93); see also Hale v. Kroger Ltd. Partnership I, 28 So.3d 772, 780-781
(Ala. 2009) (“[I]t is apparent that any statement [plaintiff] made as to the actual
length of time the spill existed is mere conjecture or surmise, which this court may
not consider as substantial evidence in order to defeat a motion for summary
The evidence is undisputed, however, that while there is no specific schedule for
inspecting the floor in the Food Avenue area, inspections are done on an ongoing basis by Target
employees. (Exh. C at 106). Specifically, in the hour prior to the fall, Kevin Patterson and Katie
Crosslin walked through Food Avenue, canvassing the area as they were trained to do by Target
and monitoring the floor for any spills, trash, or debris. (Exh.B, ¶¶ 5-8; Exh. C at 170-172).
That Target undertakes such “ongoing” inspection, Plaintiff argues, yet “failed” to do so,
is further evidence of negligence. (See Doc. #34 at 23-26). The problem with this argument is
that there is no evidence of any failure on the part of Target. Although there is no written
evidence of a floor inspection by a third party, Crosslin testified that video showed Target Team
Members walking through the area monitoring the floors, as they had been trained. On the date
of the incident, Crosslin herself canvassed the area around the Food Avenue with high frequency.
(Exh. C at 169-171). Video, deposition, and declaration testimony evidence that Crosslin, Kevin
Patterson, Venni Patterson, and other Target employees canvassed and monitored the floor in
Food Avenue on the date of the incident. (Exh. B, ¶¶ 4, 9, 10; Exh. C at 169-172; Exh. D, ¶¶ 7,
judgment.”). The liquid might have been spilled by a patron who was enjoying some
ice water such that it’s original substance was a mixture of ice and water; similarly,
the liquid might have been spilled from the ice dispenser as an original substance of
ice and water.12 There is no way to know. What is known is that several individuals
passed through the Food Avenue area minutes before the fall and none noticed any
spills – those individuals were both patrons (including Plaintiff’s husband) and
employees. To charge Target with constructive notice of a spill (or spills) the size of
a coaster that could not have been on the floor for more than mere minutes would be
to charge Target with the responsibility of protecting its invitees from all conceivable
dangers and that is quite clearly not the state of the law in Alabama. See Ex parte
Harold L. Martin Distrib. Co., 769 So.2d 313, 314 (Ala. 2000) (internal quotations
omitted); see also Hale, 28 So.3d at 781-782 (“Given the absence of any evidence
indicating that the size and location of the spill should have alerted [defendant]
employees in the area to its presence in the relatively short period between the spill
and [plaintiff’s] fall . . . [plaintiff] did not present substantial evidence . . . indicating
that [defendant] had constructive knowledge of the hazard.”).
For the purpose of this opinion, it is not material whether there was ice and water, or
just water, on the floor in the area of the fall. (See Doc. #34 at 20-23). It is also not material
whether the liquid came from the ice dispenser or not. (See id.). What is important is that Target
can not be charged with constructive notice of the spill given the facts that are not in dispute.
For this reason, defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff’s
negligence claim is due to be granted.
The Open and Obvious Nature of the Spill
In the alternative, defendant Target argues the affirmative defense that they are
“not liable for injuries to an invitee resulting from a danger that was known to the
invitee or should have been observed by the invitee in the exercise of reasonable
care.” Gable v. Shoney’s Inc., 663 So.2d 928-929 (Ala. 1995). Target argues that it
is entitled to summary judgment for the separate and additional reason that Plaintiff
should have known of and avoided the hazard had she been exercising reasonable
care. (See Doc. #27 at 19-21) (citing Dolgencorp, Inc. v. Taylor, 28 So.3d 737, 741742 (Ala. 2009)).
Indeed Plaintiff testified that had she been watching the floor instead of eating
her popcorn, she would have probably noticed the spill because it was “readily
visible” and something that could be seen from “a little ways off.” (Exh. A at 87,
226, 250). She had walked the area where she fell twice prior to her fall and noticed
nothing. (Exh. A-18). Plaintiff also testified that Target cashiers working some
distance away should have been able to notice the spot of liquid on the floor – if that
is the case, then Plaintiff herself did not exercise sufficient care for her own safety to
observe liquid on the floor that was “readily visible.” See Ex parte Neese, 819 So.2d
584, 590 (Ala. 2001) (granting summary judgment based on the open and obvious
nature of the element, where plaintiff walked over the hazard 2-3 times, failing to
exercise reasonable care to appreciate the hazard).
For this separate and additional reason, Target is entitled to summary judgment
on Plaintiff’s negligence claim.
Plaintiff has conceded that there is no evidence of intentional or reckless
conduct against Target giving rise to a claim for wantonness. (See Doc. #34 at 29).
Accordingly, the Motion (Doc. #26) for Summary Judgment, as it relates to the
wantonness claim, is due to be granted.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendant Target Corporation’s Motion (Doc. #26)
for Summary Judgment is due to be granted in its entirety. A separate order will be
entered dismissing this case.
DONE this the
day of August, 2014.
SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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